Before we get going let me be clear: I am talking about habits, not addictions.
In recent years, Americans have come to use the word “addiction” when they mean habit. For the record and in shorthand, an addiction is a compulsive need for a substance that causes physiological symptoms when withdrawn.
If you are still smoking tobacco, that's an addiction. If, like me, you eat oatmeal with fruit almost every morning of the year, that is a habit.
Habits are ingrained behaviors that might be hard to change but cause no ill physical effects when stopped.
These days, habits have a bad reputation particularly in reference to elders. Old people are often accused of being “stuck in their ways” and “out of step” because they refuse to change the routines they have kept for many years.
In fact, I've been called out on one of the habits I refuse to break, importing my coffee from New York City.
Undoubtedly, there is perfectly good coffee where I live now but 30 years ago, it took me nearly two years of experimenting with roasts and blends to find what I liked. My taste has not changed and it saves a whole lot time and effort now to just have it shipped every month or six weeks than to redo the process of finding another blend I like.
Am I stubborn about that? Yes. But who does it hurt, and that coffee blend I like gives me pleasure every morning.
In fact, habits are important to people of all ages. They make our lives easier than they would be without them:
”Habits afford us a welcome time out from the countless decisions we would otherwise constantly have to make...
“Only if a good chunk of our day transpires without our thinking about it, and as if on its own, are those energies set free that enable us to properly deal with all the other chunks that fall outside the norm.”
That quotation is from a lovely little book, What We Gain as We Grow Old, as yet unpublished in English by German philosopher, Wilhelm Schmid, and which I will tell you about when it becomes available.
For now, the section on habit as it relates to old people was a lovely moment of serendipity for me because I have recently been making notes about just that subject.
Habits, says the author, weave their way into the meaning of our lives without us having to work at it and those habits create an ongoing sense of comfort. So,
”...as we get older,” he continues, “we find ourselves wanting to preserve our lives just as they are and despite the problems this may cause...
“Much less than the young do we trust in the power of new habits to recreate the sense of familiarity and home provided by our old habits.”
However, in our culture these days, habits of long standing are frequently assumed to be bad ones, particularly among the old, and a large part of the consensus about habits is that we should knock ourselves out to break them.
It hasn't always been that way. Many of the ancients considered habits a matter of character:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” [Aristotle]
“Our character is not so much the product of race and heredity as of those circumstances by which nature forms our habits, by which we are nurtured and live." [Marcus Tullius Cicero]
“Character is long-standing habit.” [Plutarch or Socrates, depending on who is doing the quoting]
In more modern times, Adlai Stevenson believed “Laws are never as effective as habits” and Frank Crane preceded him by some years with a similar thought:
“Habits are safer than rules; you don't have to watch them. And you don't have to keep them, either. They keep you.”
Our habits have informed who we are, smoothed the passage through our days and by the time we arrive at old age, Wilhelm Schmid tells us, up to three-quarters of our lives has been handed over to habit.
That is a good thing. The greater potential for unbidden change that accompanies old age – in our health, our capabilities, our income, our social lives, our goals, purpose and much more, says Schmid,
”...the more uprooted we feel when we have to leave a familiar environment, lose an old acquaintance, or when a relationship we have grown used to ends.
“And should change be inevitable, then we need to make sure, if at all possible, to preserve at least some of our routines.”
It is a good thing to nurture our habits.